Shrew poo and worm goo are science too

Last week I had the pleasure of being a speaker at Buck Lodge Middle School’s Career Day. Several public schools in Maryland, where Buck Lodge is located, and other states organize important events like these to get students thinking about future opportunities. Do you remember what it was like to be in middle school? To the middle school me, a career seemed distant, vague and, frankly, too overwhelming to really think about. But the big question was always on my mind: What do I want to be? As I told the students at Buck Lodge, at the time, I knew I enjoyed writing and painting and found science fascinating, but that was the scope of my “career path.” I chose a high school and college known for their science programs—seemingly small decisions that actually said quite a bit about my true interests. But it wasn’t until a couple years into college that my advisor told me about a career in science writing; the more I learned about it, the more I knew it was the right fit. I was able to learn about the latest research and share it in creative ways. As I tried to express to the students, this is why I chose science: It can be fun, weird and important all at once, and it can show you a side to the world you never knew existed. So when I explained my career to the students at Buck Lodge, I wanted to show my excitement about the two main components of my job: science and writing. The science part was, naturally, what the students found most entertaining. At the beginning of each class, I asked the students how many of them liked “science, any kind of science.” Usually a sprinkling of hands rose. Then when I asked how many students liked animals or bugs, the hands shot up. “That is what I do,” I said, “I write about animals, bugs, plants, bacteria and how they all interact with each other and their environment. This science is called ecology.” The students inevitably wanted to know about the “coolest” or “weirdest” thing a (ecological) scientist has studied. I asked them if they had heard of the water bear. In one class, the students logically guessed a water bear is a bear that is particularly good at swimming. But the room erupted in “Ew!”s and “Gross!”s when I explained that the water bear is a microscopic animal living in mosses and wet environments all over the world—that they may have actually touched a water bear and not even known it. The students continued to comment on its translucent cuticle...

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Science in a “culture of news-grazers”

When was the last time you sat down after dinner to watch the local news? How about the last time you forwarded or received a link to a news story? Odds are, with the prevalence of social networking, blogs and email, you probably sent or received news in some form during your lunch break this afternoon. In fact, just by reading this post you are providing evidence that consumers tend to prefer cherry picking news throughout the day, rather than replenishing their news supply all at once.

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Science communication: from the field to the press

The reasons for sharing research with the media are relatively widely known: If a certain research topic is going to be highlighted as an important issue, then it needs to be shared with the public. And reporters are one of the best ways to give research exposure. The question, then, is what makes research newsworthy?

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The art of communicating climate change

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst   London-based writer and philosopher Alain de Botton recently shared his thoughts on the environment. In a UN Chronicle essay, de Botton says that climate change is different from threats we’ve faced in the past—whether natural disasters or nuclear warfare—in that it is neither outside our control nor a result of deliberate action. The product of the day-to-day activities of billions of people, it can only be ameliorated through collective effort. “So we are guilty,” he says, “but also unusually powerless.”  Submitted photo to 350.org from the Czech Republic Moreover, the global scale of climate change has produced a fundamental shift in how we view the environment. We have, according to de Botton, been forced to abandon our long-held view of nature as something lasting and larger than ourselves—a sentiment captured in a quote from the 17th Century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne: “Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oaks.”   “How mindsets have changed,” says de Botton,   The equation has been reversed. Men are no longer temporary and oak trees eternal. Nature no longer endures. Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the earth. Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves.  And the result? Hysterical sentimentality, he says. We treat nature “like a wounded panda.” But when it comes to enacting change, many of the greatest threats of global change are spatially and temporarily removed from those being asked to act—“our empathetic powers have been stretched to the breaking point.” So in spite of our sentimental regard for nature—and the awareness that this sentimentality suggests—we remain reluctant to make sacrifices.   Granted, Americans are increasingly skeptical of climate change, as evidenced by a recent Pew study, and the hacked Climate Research Unit emails have done their part to exacerbate skepticism around the world.  But skeptics aside, you may recall another Pew study, wherein global warming ranked last on Americans’ list of policy priorities for 2009. When considered alongside the proportion of Americans who think that global warming is a very or somewhat serious problem (73% in 2008, 65% in 2009), the disconnect is clear. We have the facts and we’re voting no.   The scientific community finds itself at an interesting juncture then, having traditionally focused communication efforts on identifying and characterizing the problem of climate change....

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The Royal Society’s geoengineering report

Here’s another one of those examples where the link between scientists and the public can break down, leading to conflicting or erroneous reports. As reported by the Nature blog The Great Beyond, when the Royal Society released a report on climate geoengineering earlier this week, reporters were scratching their heads about the take-home message from the report.  The British coverage was across the map, ranging from Boffins: Give up on CO2 cuts, only geoengineering can work (The Register) to Hopes dashed for geo-engineering solutions (The Financial Times). The bottom line of the report is really nothing new: we should do everything possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we should also know the consequences of geoengineering schemes as a last resort. These differing views raise the question: Is it useful when a scientific body goes on record as saying something middle-of-the-road? If it’s not advancing the science, is it just going to confuse people? Read Nature’s coverage of the report here. Also read about a recent paper by Ken Caldeira, a coauthor on the report,...

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Farewell, ESA Meeting 2009

As ESA’s Annual Meeting drew to a close today and the city of Albuquerque breathed a sigh of relief — now there might be places for locals to sit in a restaurant! — the echoes of the meeting were just beginning.  Scientific meetings are a place to bring together scientists from myriad subfields: in the case of ecology, from biogeochemistry to microbial ecology to agroforestry to physiological ecology…and the list goes on. When they all get together, magic often happens. This meeting was no exception, with large-scale issues such as invasive species, climate change and even — here’s a new one — warfare ecology on the bill. Ecologists aren’t the only ones who think their work is important, either.  Reports have emerged from Nature magazine, the Albuquerque Journal, Scientific American and others.  (The Nature folks also blogged like crazy about the meeting.)  Watch for other stories that will come out within the next week in places like Land Letter and National Geographic News. Either way you slice it, communication is key.  Ecologists communicating with each other = good. Ecologists communicating with the public = also good.  Ecologists doing both = slowly and steadily changing the world. From the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel, goodbye, ESA meeting...

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Meet the Press: Scientists talk ecology with the media

Last night the worlds of science and journalism collided at the ESA Annual Meeting in a session to help scientists learn how to communicate with the media. Fittingly called Meet the Press: Talking Ecology with the Media, the interactive session played out like a science American Idol, with scientists pitching their research to a panel of “judges”: two journalists and a media-savvy scientist. The three panelists first offered their different perspectives on the science-media interface. Emma Marris is a science journalist for Nature who writes feature and news stories for the weekly science publication. John Fleck is a science journalist at the Albuquerque Journal, a metropolitan newspaper. And Sharon Collinge is a practicing ecologist who has had training and experience working with the media. Emma Marris, John Fleck and Sharon Collinge give advice to scientists on talking with the press. Using these tips, the attendees then took turns pitching their work to the panel – in under one minute. The volunteers pitched stories about shark finning, genetically engineered crops, invasive baby’s breath flowers and trees that might deter nitrogen deposition in public water sources – a form of pollution that can lead to blue baby syndrome. The panelists took notes and asked follow-up questions, then gave crtitiques. Ariana Sutton-Grier of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found the session especially useful and interesting, in particular because she learned that many institutions have dedicated staff to help scientists connect with the media. “I never even realized that we have public information officers,” she said, adding that the session helped her realize that the stories behind the science are often just as interesting as the results. Although the panelists love a good story about science, they admit that, like any reporter, they too are looking for a good “news peg,” or an exciting bit of newsworthy information that can make a good headline. As Marris put it, “If I got an e-mail with the subject line ‘Trees help prevent blue babies,’ I’d open...

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When scientific fiction replaces good science

Good science writers – as with all reporters – should verify the validity of their stories before publishing, making sure to cite the peer-reviewed research detailing a new discovery. But as in the case of the purported cane toad-eating frog, an exciting enough fact with weak empirical support can sometimes take off like….well, an invasive species. In 2005 and 2006, several media sources (including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, and ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment) reported that the native Australian Dahl’s frog could survive after eating cane toad metamorphs, which are normally toxic to predators.  The report was exciting because the invasive cane toads have wreaked havoc on Australia’s ecosystems since their introduction in the 1930s, and this provided the first supposed evidence of a possible biocontrol to thwart the toads’ spread. The finding, however, was reported by a community watch organizer who had fed metamorphs to five Dahl’s frogs in a terrarium at his home. As Rick Shine and colleagues point out in a Dec. 10 e-view paper in Frontiers, titled “The myth of the toad-eating frog,” this finding was based on anecdotal evidence and lacked an appropriate sample size, control groups and replicated groups. The finding was not reviewed by scientists; indeed, even when reported in the media, no other scientists were contacted to comment on the story.  In a bizarre twist, Shine also reported in his paper that at least one prominent ecologist retold the story, believing it was supported by scientific evidence. When Shine and his colleagues tested the frog in a controlled setting with replication, randomization and appropriate sample sizes, they found that Dahl’s frog is just as susceptible to cane toad toxin as other native species. More than half of frogs that ate the toad metamorphs in captivity died. Further, the frogs that tried to eat cane toad tadpoles spit them out and learned to avoid them in subsequent trials. So, who’s responsible here? With today’s ease of self-publishing, the lines between expert and self-proclaimed pundit blur, making it ever more important for journalists to validate the reliability of their sources. But scientists are not guiltless – although this paper cries foul, it does so more than three years after the initial report.  If good ecological science is to inform public policy decisions, it’s up to scientists to ensure that the facts reported are...

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